The vital web of relationships that once sustained Americans and their civic life was already fraying. Then came a global pandemic.

Now, an initiative devoted to restoring what is known as “social capital” is looking to convince a nation’s people, keeping 6 feet apart, that they will be better off coming together in the myriad communities and groups that once led French historian Alexis de Tocqueville to remark on America’s “spirit of association.”

Social capital and its importance was the topic of a panel discussion convened Tuesday by the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, a nonprofit based in New York City. The event featured remarks by Utah Republican Sen. Mike Lee, chairman of Congress’ Joint Economic Committee, and leader of the committee’s Social Capital Project.

Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, speaks during the confirmation hearing for Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett, before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Wednesday, Oct. 14, 2020, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, Pool) | Susan Walsh, Associated Press

Lee said the project had been a “welcome respite” from partisan infighting since concern about America’s fraying social fabric is shared by people on both sides of the political aisle.

But although the effort is being led by a government body, Lee said that one of the group’s tasks is to remind people that the work of building community doesn’t take place in Washington, and often, not within any form of government. In fact, government often has to get out of the way in order for social capital to flourish, he said.  

“When government steps in and does too much, the muscle of civil society starts to atrophy,” Lee said.

That’s not to say that government doesn’t play a role. It could help shore up community groups and institutions by giving lower-income people the opportunity to deduct charitable donations like wealthy people and corporations do, Lee said.

The government could also do more to make child rearing more affordable, said panelists including Kay Hymowitz, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and contributing editor at City Journal.

“The family fragmentation we’ve seen over the past 40 to 50 years has done more to contribute to the decline of social capital than any other factor,” Hymowitz said.

So, what is the elusive thing called social capital, why did we lose it and how can we get it back?

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‘The family is the keystone’

Although the term “social capital” goes back to at least 1916, when a school supervisor in West Virginia used the term to rally community support for schools, it received widespread attention 20 years ago with the publication of Robert D. Putnam’s book “Bowling Alone.” 

In the book, Putnam defined social capital as the “social networks and the norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness that arise from them.”  He went on to show the decline in these networks — from service clubs to civic organizations to houses of worship — and to examine the similarly declining levels of civility and trust, not only among individuals but of institutions.

Today, just 8% of Americans live in counties that rank high in social capital, and nearly 40% of us live in counties near the bottom. Of the 20 states with the poorest rankings, 17 are in the South, research by the Social Capital Project has shown. People who live in states that rank low in social capital tend to have smaller families, lower church membership and attendance, diminished engagement with neighbors and less volunteerism, one report by the Social Capital Project said.

States were ranked using data from counties and states on a range of social, economic, demographic, health, religious and other indicators to measure the health of each location’s “associational life.”

Utah leads the 12 states with the highest social capital, according to the report.

Utah’s social capital may stem in part from its large families. The state consistently ranks the highest in family size in census reports, and is also among the most religious states in the U.S., according to Gallup.

The importance of family in social capital is one reason that Hymowitz believes the U.S. should enact policies, such as child tax credits, to make child rearing more affordable.

“The family is the keystone of social relations. ... It’s where you learn to be a citizen, a social being,” she said.

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Hymowitz said the divorce rate and the rise in single parenthood has created “much more fragile relations in family life,” which has contributed to the decline of social capital. The share of births to unwed mothers has increased from 5% in 1960 to around 40% today, Lee said.

People don’t like to talk about these factors, “because it seems like such a personal decision, and it is a personal decision, but we now can see that these personal decisions have huge ramifications within the broader society,” Hymowitz said.

Even when children are in a single-parent home, research has shown that there is more upward mobility and thriving when they live in neighborhoods where the majority of households are led by married couples, she said. “This tells you that this idea of social capital is for real. That it’s something that affects neighborhoods and entire communities.”

Agents of uplift

Another panelist, Robert Woodson, president of the Woodson Center, a nonprofit that works to revitalize low-income communities, said “the traditional values we all believe in are now counter-culture.”

He called for more study of families that are succeeding and said that too often researchers focus their attention on problems, “almost like autopsies.”  

“You can learn nothing from studying failure except how to create failure,” Woodson said.  Too often, liberals say the solution to troubled communities is more government subsidies, while conservatives say government help should be reduced. “Neither side goes into those communities and explores why 30% of the families are raising children who are not dropping out of school,” he said.

“Families and communities can be healed from the inside out and the bottom up if we can recognize that the most low-income communities have agents of uplift within them,” he added.

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Scott Winship, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and former executive director of the Social Capital Project, said that growing affluence in America is a cause of the decline of social capital, yet affluence also seems to offer a protective benefit, at least among the affluent.

While in centuries past, Americans had to rely on neighbors to help them construct a barn; today, people have the resources to hire others to build what they need. “We need each other less,” he said.

But it’s a “complicated paradox” that affluent and more educated people generally have stronger measures of social capital than people with fewer resources, Winship said.

In his presentation, Lee, the Utah senator, noted that while total charitable giving has increased in most years over the past half-century, the overall percentage of Americans who give has declined, leaving a greater share to businesses and corporations.

Sixty-six percent of Americans gave to a charitable organization or nonprofit in 2000, compared to 56% in 2014, and the decline was particularly pronounced among lower-income Americans, Lee said.

“Nonprofits, churches and other voluntary institutions play an absolutely essential role in American life; they help provide for people’s needs, supporting the stability of community institutions in supplying goods such as education and the arts,” he said. “Charitable giving is the lifeblood of organizations like that.”

Lee believes steps such as allowing lower-income individuals to deduct donations is part of a strategy that could help strengthen communal life in America. “Our associational life is an essential part of what makes us American,” he said.